If you’re ready to get out of the holiday “stuff” race, our guide will help you give something they’d never expect: travel memories that will last a lifetime—and require less wrapping, too.

By Matt Villano
December 04, 2015
Credit: Bo Lundberg

There's nothing wrong with things. Things can nourish us, keep us warm or cool, connect us with our loved ones, make us look good—or, at the very least, better.

But experiences make us happier than material goods do, according to a Cornell University study published last year. That’s just one among many similar findings that indicate that doing stuff, rather than having stuff, brings the most lasting joy.

So this holiday season, instead of buying someone a gadget, consider giving a getaway. Rather than choosing a scarf, spring for an escape. Travel yields memories that last forever, and enables your friends and family to grow through new sights, tastes, smells, and encounters. Plus, they won’t have to find space to store it.

Where to begin? We’ve gathered up some ideas to inspire you—plus some tips to help you get it right.

Planes, Trains, and Ferraris

You can put a ribbon on everything from a simple taxi ride to a private-jet journey.

Credit: Bo Lundberg

All-You-Can-Fly Travel

If someone on your West Coast list is constantly on the go, newcomers Surf Air and OneGo offer unlimited flights for a flat fee. With Surf Air, you’re traveling on private jets; at press time the company covered Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Carlsbad, and Truckee, California, plus Las Vegas. Prices start at $1,750 a month. OneGo subscribers get access to commercial flights in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona for as little as $1,500 a month.

Airline Gift Cards

Just about all of the major carriers offer gift cards; you can get them directly from the airlines and in many supermarkets and bigbox stores. (E-delivery is also an option—with United Airlines, it’s the only option.) Be aware that gift cards usually can’t be used toward upgrades or baggage and other fees—so they’re better suited to larger amounts. (Denominations vary: Southwest cards come in any amount up to $1,000, for instance.) And some companies limit the number of cards you can redeem at once.

Private Jets

A more indulgent gift: an airplane all to themselves. The Marquis Jet Card unlocks access to the NetJets fleet, which ranges from short-hop Cessnas to Bombardier Global 6000s capable of zipping from Boston to Cape Town. The cards come in 25-hour increments, starting at $150,000. That doesn’t include fuel surcharges and other fees, and there are restrictions on peak days.

Ground Transport

Trains and car services also have gift options. Amtrak (amtrak.com) sells $50 to $1,000 gift certificates (for a $5 fee). A caveat: they can only be redeemed at a ticket counter.

Even Uber has gift codes that let recipients book a car in any of the 60 countries it serves. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Gotham Dream Cars, with locations in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, lets you give top-shelf rentals, which start at $349 a day. A Ferrari or a Lamborghini is a mighty nice way to get away for a weekend.

Ways to Stay

Give your favorite people a place to bed down—with accommodations that range from pup tent to palace.

Credit: Bo Lundberg

Big Brands

Gift cards from companies that own a whole host of brands are a win for people who travel often to major and more obscure destinations. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which operates more than 130 properties under the Fairmont, Raffles, and Swissôtel names, lets recipients use gift cards for everything from rooms to spa treatments. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts has a similar policy: you can use the credit toward any charge that can be applied to a hotel bill— right down to the tips. Some companies do put limits on gift cards: Marriott International, which owns a range of brands, from Ritz-Carlton to Fairfield Inn, doesn’t allow them to be put toward prepaid reservations.

Curated Collections

Hotel associations and collections gather properties with similar styles; giving a gift from one is a subtle way of showing that you understand someone’s travel taste. Relais & Châteaux, the worldwide consortium of restaurants and inns selected for their charm, sense of place, service, and cuisine, approaches gift certificates in a refined fashion. In addition to choosing straight dollar denominations, givers can select packages such as a three-course dinner with wine or champagne ($425 for two) or a wellness escape that includes a spa treatment ($668 for two). The recipient just has to pick a property.

The Mr. & Mrs. Smith collection includes roughly 1,000 design-forward boutique hotels. Bookings made through the Mr. & Mrs. Smith website come with a free extra, such as a picnic lunch or a welcome cocktail. A downside: gift cards cannot be used for spa treatments or meals. Bedandbreakfast.com sells no-fee, nonexpiring gift cards in any amount you choose that are welcomed at most of the nearly 6,000 B&Bs and inns the booking site represents in the U.S. and Canada.

Offbeat Accomodations

Perhaps your giftee prefers less-traditional digs? Gift cards from Canopy & Stars can be used toward stays at more than 550 glamping spots—think tree houses and yurts— in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. This holiday season, a £150 purchase comes with a £50 bonus voucher. Rural Retreats is a group of more than 350 luxury rentals in the U.K., mostly in the countryside. The company offers gift vouchers starting at £25. Home-rental behemoth Airbnb provides electronic credits that make for easy, if somewhat unromantic, delivery.

Giving the Extra Mile

Airline and hotel points can be a more powerful gift than cash—if you and your recipients handle them wisely.

1. Don’t transfer.

Giving someone your surplus miles might sound smart, but you’ll probably get hit with transfer fees. With most programs, you can simply book travel for others through your account. And JetBlue and British Airways let you pool miles in household accounts for free.

2. Consider the fees.

Airlines usually add sales tax and processing fees to mileage purchases. When they use the miles, recipients may also have to pay redemption charges, which can range from just a few dollars to more than $1,000, depending on the airline and class of seat.

3. Do the math.

If you’re buying points, don’t spend more than you would if you paid for a flight or room in cash. Compare the total cost of the miles you want to purchase to the retail price of whatever they’ll probably be used for, to make sure you’re getting—and giving— a deal.

4. Look for specials.

Most loyalty programs offer bonuses or discounts on mileage purchases or transfers at some point during the year. If you can, hold off for a really good one—they’re especially common before the holidays. (This is when it pays to be on the e-mail list.)

All-Inclusive Adventures

If you’d like to wrap up something bigger and more complicated, turn to a specialist.

Credit: Bo Lundberg

Day Trips

For bucket-list quickhits, Viator specializes in short tours and activities—a day trip in California wine country for about $75, a helicopter tour of New York for less than $200, and thousands of other options. It sells gift cards in amounts of up to $500.

Family Fun

You don’t have to be a fan of theme parks to appreciate what Adventures by Disney provides: familyoriented, carefully planned, guided trips to spots around the world. Most of these itineraries include meals and last a minimum of seven nights. The journeys start at around $2,300 per person, and as long as you have the names of all travelers when you’re booking, any of them can be purchased as a gift.

Good Sports

There are plenty of ways to satisfy those who dream of attending an athletic event. Los Angeles–based travel agency Trine, which specializes in major happenings, can arrange a trip to see the Ryder Cup in Scotland, for instance, with a suite near the golf course, up-close viewing privileges, and cart transport around the greens. Costs depend on the kind of trip you have in mind. Fandeavor.com, founded three years ago by a pair of Zappos alums, provides all-inclusive custom trips to major games, and is expert at putting together gift packages. You can either customize one of the deals on the website or order à la carte over the phone. Prices average $3,000 per person.

Ambitious Adventures

Want to give an impressive present but avoid getting involved in the planning process? Choose a trip—or a voucher—from a highend tour operator. Gift certificates from Cox & Kings, which organizes group and private journeys, come in $250 to $25,000 denominations. They can be used for the company’s custom or preplanned trips and are even transferable. Our own T+L Journeys are meticulously mappedout vacations to destinations across the globe, created in partnership with bespoke travel company Black Tomato. All of the itineraries can be purchased as gifts for someone else. A fournight Nashville trip, for example, focusing on the area’s food and music scenes starts at $3,390 per person.

Easy Extras

Stocking stuffers that can make travel safer, faster, and more pleasant.

Give MedjetAssist to your favorite globe-trotters, and you’ll know that in an emergency they can be air-evacuated to the hospital of their choice. A one-year membership starts at $270.

PriorityPass cardholders get access to more than 850 airport lounges worldwide. Give a single visit for $27 or $99 for a year’s worth of free snacks and Wi-Fi.

Airports are less of a headache with TSA PreCheck clearance—no more shoe and belt removal at security checkpoints. It costs $85.

Buying a museum membership for a culture maven? If the institution is part of the North American Reciprocal Museum Association, one membership means access to more than 750 other spots throughout the United States.